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January 19, 1999

OBSERVATIONS:

More Good Ole Boy Politics at USA

by Tom Brennan

At the USA Board-of-Trustees meeting, Thursday, December 3, most trustees voted to abandon the search for a new President, and voted instead to appoint Gordon Moulton President, but the fact of the matter is that there was never a search in the first place that could at some point become necessary to abandon. At that meeting it became amply evident that some trustees cut the Achilles tendon of the search, crippling the search process right at the starting line because they had preselected their winner.

When asked to give a report on the status of the search, Larry Striplin, a member of the board of trustees and chair of the search committee, said the committee never started looking in earnest for a new president because a majority of the board had already made up their minds to have Mr. Moulton as President, so without consulting anyone on the committee, Striplin concluded that a search would just be a waste of money and did nothing. Is it merely coincidental that the money "saved" by aborting the search, and a lot more to boot, has since found its way into the pockets of high-level administrators who are already grossly overpaid? The board set the example by setting Mr. Moulton's salary as one of the highest in the land -- a princely $240,000. As soon as the board officially confirmed him as President, Mr. Moulton, presumably taking his cue from the board's extravagant example, doled out huge raises to several administrative magnificoes, almost all of these now sport six-figure salaries ranging from $100,000 to almost $200,000. And that's not all. The icing on the cake is an additional 8 percent -- the amount allocated this year for raises to faculty and staff. As Mr. Maston Mims Sr., commenting on the "massive increases," put it in letter to the Mob.Reg.: "One begins to wonder where such authority by President Moulton comes from. Was this action taken with the good counsel of the USA board of trustees, attorneys, the Legislature and the governor's office, or was it just on his own?"

Trustee Striplin took all the blame for the "search process breaking down" (Mob.Reg., 12/3/98). How magnanimous of him! But Striplin's willingness to paint himself as the fall guy is a pathetic attempt to cover up the aggrandizing of power by some members of the Board of Trustees. To reiterate: there was no process. Striplin, kowtowing to pressure from some board members, shirked the duty he was charged with by the Governor, sat on his hands and prevented a legitimate search for a new President. By the logic of the board members who leaned on Striplin, it's perfectly okay to abort searches before they start whenever trustees and administrators decide they have already decided who gets the job, citing, as Mayer Mitchell did, "a unique situation," or when, as trustee Kvalheim put it, trustees and administrators really "believe in their hearts" that searches before they start should stop with the person the heart tells them to stop with. Of course, these are exactly the ploys the good ole boys use when they want to do things their way--"we say when our unique situation warrants our interference and we say our hearts confirm that such interference is warranted when our hearts tell us the situation is unique." This is another instance of the vicious thinking I wrote about in my last editorial. But of course thinking in vicious circles makes perfectly good sense to those who stand to gain richly from it.

But as the great English poet John Milton was fond of saying, "Evil circles back recoil on themselves." But don't expect the recoil to happen overnight. Now that the Board of Trustees has shown its willingness to claim a "unique situation" and make up the rules to suit the "unique situation," the USA faculty now knows for sure what some suspected all along, namely that the search for a new President of USA was a scam from the start. The scales on their eyes are nearly gone. And the brutal truth coming home to roost in the minds of faculty is the naked realization that a majority CABAL of the Board of Trustees at USA, despite asseverations to the contrary, has no intentions of letting the faculty play a vital role in the destiny of the university, and further it should be apparent that a corollary of the board's aggrandizing of power to itself is that it intends to shape the future of the university around what Mayer Mitchell, in referring to his own heart-throb allegiance, calls "a culture of management."

We should know what that means. Haven't we witnessed the work of "management culture" in Mobile? "Management culture" (a.k.a. business culture) is the culture of racial discrimination in some upscale housing in Mobile, and the corporate welfare culture of the Industrial Development Boards. If you've been reading The Harbinger -- you know how that "culture" has, over the years, discriminated against black people and low-income white people, and has ripped off the Mobile County Public School System. And God knows how much more has been ripped off and/or polluted environmentally by "management culture" in Mobile.

However, the many devotees and invitees of "management culture" present at the board meeting on December 3 were on their very best behavior, zealously and fulsomely uttering politic testimony in which they averred, in heartfelt fashion, that a new day was dawning at USA with the ascension of Mr. Moulton to the presidency.

Though somewhat stunned by listening to all the praise, I couldn't help but recall that Gordon Moulton was one the participants in the gang of administrators who, uninvited, crashed a Faculty-Senate Caucus meeting a couple of years back with the intention of disrupting it, and I have heard from more than one senior member of the faculty that Mr. Moulton's real friends are not among the ranks of Arts-and-Science faculty but among the ranks of faculty and administrators who, like himself, hold degrees business and other vocational disciplines. So I'm afraid I can't wholeheartedly add my paean of praise to the litany of testimonials offered up by a parade of Moulton supporters gathered for the occasion -- the contingent representing the alumni (15 past presidents of the Alumni Association) practically groveling at the feet of the powerful were heard to whisper, "Give us football, give us football." And member of the Alumni Board of Directors, Mr. Toifel, was heard later in the Mob.Reg. chanting the mantra: "faculty bad, faculty lazy, faculty bad."

Though Mr. Moulton has only been in the office of President for six months, to hear these supporters blazon his virtues and his successes (what successes -- the big bucks given to high-level administrators?), making extravagant claims that "a new air of optimism" was abroad since Mr. Moulton's arrival and that he had garnered "universal praise" (even the janitors have joined the choir, according to trustee Langham), you would think that he was the long sought Messiah who will save the university from what the Chairman of the Board, Jack Brunson, called "the situation." The befuddled Mr. Brunson never elaborated on "the situation," but whatever it was he didn't want "to keep something stirred up [by having the search go forward]," preferring instead "to get the thing leveled out." Brunson's idea of leveling things out is to make sure that those in power get to decide standards of levelness. Level is what we say is level. Brunson, for one, was, inadvertently, leveling with us when he said the board never had any intention of conducting a legitimate search for a President of the USA. That was made amply clear when he claimed trustees never meant for Mr. Moulton to be any thing other than President and that's why they never used the term "interim."

However, all was not unanimous. Some few had the temerity to demur. The demurrals were mostly very polite and very genteel, but demurrals nonetheless. Each prefaced the demurral with a concession to the worth of the man, Moulton, and then argued the only relevant issue on the table, namely that to dump the search is a violation of academic process universally practiced, and as trustee Stokes said "subverting the process" amounts to "a slap in the face of the faculty, which is the backbone of this institution" (Mob.Reg., 12/4/98). Among the three trustees who questioned trustee Kvalheim's arrogant motion to abandon the search, Dr. Stokes was the most vocal and eloquent advocate for keeping it alive. Dr. Stokes also complained about the way the motion was added to the agenda at the last minute without adequately notifying the university community. Trustees not in the CABAL had no forewarning that such a motion would be put on the agenda until Wednesday morning when contacted by a Mob.Reg. reporter. Calvin Jones, chair of the Faculty Senate, said the faculty Senate would have liked to have been consulted about the idea of abandoning the search before the eleventh hour. He said he found out about it Thursday morning, the day of the board meeting, and Jones also said that the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate would have preferred to see the search committee complete its job.

Calvin Jones's, under the gun of a largely hostile group of Moulton supporters, performed poorly in the statement he was permitted to make to the board of trustees; he equivocated, allowing trustees to assume that the faculty would make no strenuous objections to their assumption of total control of university affairs, affairs in which faculty traditionally play a key role in selecting the university's chief officers. Moreover, I suppose one should expect a less than vigorous defense of faculty prerogatives when those prerogatives had already been severely compromised by the Senate's failure to object to the make up of the Search Committee. Aside from Robert Bennett -- the alumni's gung-ho football booster -- Calvin Jones was the only legitimate faculty member selected by the trustees to be on the search committee. From the start, Jones and the Senate's Executive Committee was forced to assume the posture of hat-in-hand supplicants begging crumbs from the high and mighty; he is quoted in the Mob.Reg. as saying that the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate "appreciates the willingness of several of the trustees to meet with us this morning [Thursday morning] to consider our concerns," and that the Executive Committee "also appreciates their expressions of support for the importance of the faculty's role in the institution" (12/4/98). Pardon me, though not invited, I was at the Board meeting and I did not see anything other than token appreciation of faculty concerns and of the faculty's role in the institution, and only after much guffawing over which part of the university's anatomy was its "real backbone." The Student Government President received resounding applause when he insisted the alumni were the real backbone. Excuse me! What exactly has the alumni of USA contributed to the institution thus far? It appears to me that all they want out of the university is a professionalized athletic program no matter what it costs in subsidies to athletes and salaries for coaches and more administrators.

Trustees Herman Thomas and Bettye May, the two black members of the board who raised objections to Kvalheim's motion to abandon the search (Larry Langford was absent but sent in a proxy voting for it), protested that the motion would circumvent a search process that is standard nationwide. Stokes and Herman argued that faculty should have more input into the decision. While the comments of trustees Thomas and Maye were not exactly a resounding defense of the faculty's rights, they were, nonetheless, some recognition by two black members of the board that there are legitimate processes and that those processes should be adhered to. I was, however, very impressed by Carlos Moore, President of African American Student Association. I'm sure it took a lot of courage for a lone black student to stand before that august body and say what he believed was right, namely that the search committee should go forward with the search for a new president. But it's not surprising that three black people would stand up and speak for good process, since they know intimately and how intimidatingly powerful white males have time and again manipulated and abrogated process to secure their own selfish purposes.

Perhaps the most bathetic moment of the Board meeting was when Charles Baugh, Dean of the College of Medicine who Mr. Moulton recently resurrected from retirement, chimed in on cue with sage words about how naive faculty are who think searches will turn up the best person for the job. Why, in his 30 years of experience he has aft seen many a search gang agley. To hear him talk with such show of zeal and indignation at the wrong done by insisting on a search conducted according to due process, you would think he was the only faculty member in the university who has any experience with searches. We all know how searches can go awry but that's no excuse for improvising your own manipulative process every time the heart cries this is a unique situation. If Dr. Baugh doesn't believe in the efficacy of search processes, what will he do about searching for that Dean of the College of Medicine and for that VP of Medical Affairs he's planning to "search" for? And just what process will he use? Maybe he'll flip a coin or consult his crystal ball, or take his marching orders from the board of trustees.

So the question is: Why the pretense of a search when some Board members, by their own admission, never for a moment intended to carry through with one? The answer is country simple: they knew very well they needed to hide their mailed fist in a velvet glove for fear of a revolt from the faculty. Knowing it would be a gross insult to the faculty to just make Mr. Moulton the permanent President, they waited awhile, gathered a lot of trumped up support, especially from alumni with ho-ho-ho visions of sugar plums and football, and put out messages repeatedly claiming the faculty was perfectly happy with Mr. Moulton as President. But is the insult any less gross now than it was six months ago? And have they avoided creating a rebellious faculty?

I'm happy to report that the Faculty Senate at USA showed some real gumption at a special meeting called December 9 to discuss the issues raised by the appointment of Mr. Moulton. The meeting produced a resolution, resolving first "that the Faculty Senate of the University of South Alabama has no confidence in the Board of Trustees of the University of South Alabama to serve as the governing body of the University," and resolving second "that the Faculty Senate requests the Board of Trustees to rescind its recent action abandoning the search process and immediately initiate an open, honest, and legitimate search for a permanent president." The resolution passed by a vote of 32 to 8. Needless to say the board has stubbornly refused to reverse itself. The response of the board's chair, Jack Brunson, is probably typical of the board's CABAL members; he said, "he would like to know which of the university's academic departments wanted to give up part of their budgets to finance a search" (Mob.Reg.,12/10/98). Why not ask: "Which of the university administrators would like to give up some of their fat raises to finance a search?" Later Mr. Brunson, in a letter to Calvin Jones, again made his "unique-situation" claim only in somewhat different language. He said: "extraordinary circumstances" "warranted decisive and immediate action in the best interest of the institution." Well, if you say so Jack, it must be so!

Meanwhile, the opportunists among the administration and their allies are busily attempting to undermine the Senate resolution and divide the faculty. On Wednesday, January 6 Dan Sellers, the Associate Dean of Allied Health, called a meeting of the faculty of Allied Health to oppose the Senate's resolution. (Of course, no one believes that the idea for this meeting originated with Sellers.) While Seller's attempt to browbeat his faculty was not successful, his intent was clear -- namely, as Calvin Jones put it, to circumvent "the Faculty Senate as the duly constituted, elected, representative and independent voice of the faculty." Jones also correctly pointed out that "meetings called by administrators set their own agenda and faculty (especially those without tenure) are likely to feel intimidated and feel less free to express their opinions." At this meeting, Associate Dean Sellers, apparently not at all adverse to using some bad process of his own to move things along, called for a show of hands instead of a secret ballot -- a sure way to coerce untenured faculty to vote the agenda Sellers and other administrators cherish.

USA's season of crisis arrived with the ouster of President Whiddon and the end of 35 years of stability. The board of trustees' reckless and arrogant use of power in appointing Mr. Moulton without due process was the first of many battles, and if faculty are not willing to fight using the only potent means they have to balance the scales in the coming struggles, namely the empowerment that comes with tenure, they will lose that empowerment and find themselves at the mercy of "management culture." I am sorry to have to report yet again on the way in which the stale, hackneyed plot of the culture wars in Mobile pits business culture against everything that's fine in the university, but that's the situation folks, even though many seem to be illiterate when it comes to reading that text. And the next chapter in the story may see the gutting of the USA Foundation proceeding apace, and should that happen, the pigskin follies will not lag far behind.

The good news is that the USA Faculty Senate and its leader, Calvin Jones, is, after a slow start, standing up firmly in support of time-honored, legitimate process in the university.


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